Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Movie review: Skyfall

James Bond went old school for his fiftieth anniversary.  Or possibly oooooold school.  I don’t mean that Skyfall included throwbacks and homages to past Bond movies (but it did), I mean it threw out nearly all the conventions and tropes that the Bond was built on.  Most notably, all the complex gadgets the franchise is famous for are completely non-existent in this iteration.  Bond doesn’t meet Q in the lab with all the goofy/deadly tests going on, and Q sends him away with nothing but a Walther and a radio transmitter.  Not even a GPS device, an actual radio transmitter, and a large one at that.  The only concession to Q Division’s high tech history is the Walther makes sure no one can fire it but Bond himself.

So when I say old school… Bond faces the bad guys with nothing but his wits, a couple of trusty firearms, and the shiny Aston Martin from his early escapades in Dr. No and Goldfinger.  It’s an interesting choice, especially in a movie that goes out of its way to contrast intelligence work in the digital age with the old-school Cold War era work previous Bonds have done.  The movie works hard to make this comparison much to its detriment.  In the beginning I was expecting a ‘passing of the guard’ type where everyone acknowledges the importance of digital intelligence gathering while also needing field agents, but in end the message was that old-school brute force wins out over any digital finesse.  I won’t quibble with the message, but getting there seemed a bit misleading.

Skyfall continues the darker, grittier Bond that has been around since Craig took over the character in Casino Royale.  This is one change I heartily endorse.  The entire franchise was just a bit too in love with itself and had veered way too much in the direction of camp so a little more dark realism brings it back down to earth.  I did find myself a bit confused about one aspect.  Casino Royale was presented as a prequel of sorts.  A look back at the early days of Bond, but now just a few years later we’re shown a Bond on the decline.  A Bond who’s lost a step due to all the injuries and trauma he has been through and who needs a little ‘administrative’ help to pass his field fitness test.  It’s a creative choice in keeping with the old vs new conflict the film wants to keep beating us with and a logical point to reach in Bond’s career, but it was a bit jarring for people keeping up with the franchise.  I assume this is a meta effort to acknowledge and derail the familiar tropes of the franchise but it’s a bit of a character swerve.

They worked hard at humanizing Bond in a way that has never been done before.  Bond isn’t always at his best as the character was in the Connery days.  He spends a decent amount of run time looking hungover and scruffy.  This Bond doesn’t spend nearly as much time pitching woo as is typical and settles for a bit of perfunctory flirting with a fellow agent and a really rapey shower scene.  The main lady in Bond’s life is M, his boss and a blatant mother figure.  She is presented as a very morally ambiguous figure who made a lot of shady decisions but is ultimately on the side of the angels.  This character is even more humanized than Bond and has a much larger role to play than M has in any Bond movie I can recall.  The ultimate humanization of both characters occurs near the climax at the ancestral Bond estate in Scotland.

As always in a Bond movie, Skyfall has some really amazing locations.  The London scenes aren’t especially impressive, but there are some amazing shots of the harbor and skyscrapers of Shanghai as well as some extended scenes on a deserted island that seems straight out of a horror video game.  That said, my favorite by far is the location of the film’s climax.  The Scottish highlands are deserted and forlorn yet achingly beautiful and make brilliant use of fog, especially when the fog is backlit by exploding helicopters and a burning building.

Edit: I’ve since found out that a lot of these locations were actually filmed in studio due to MGM’s cash flow problems of the last few years with only establishing shots from the locations.  I’m a little dissappointed, but bravo for the staging.

I enjoyed Skyfall a great deal.  It’s never going to be mistaken for an Oscar contender and it’s a bit muddled and contradictory in places, but it corrects a lot of the excesses of the Bond franchise and goes a long way to present our hero as a real human instead of a sexed up human gadget deployment system.  I recommend it for any fan of action movies though long time Bond fans may be in for a bit of a shock.


Read Full Post »

I’m a great fan of gossip and behind-the-scenes books and shows. I’m also history AND genres like science fiction and horror. So the idea that one of America’s greatest presidents was a secret vampire hunter was fascinating to me. I’ve been aware of the Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter book for some time, but I hadn’t picked up until I saw the movie come out. Both were a little lacking to me, in different ways, so this one has the makings of a good ‘Book vs Movie’ post. This is the third book versus movie post I’ve done (see previously: Psycho, and I Am Number Four). It’s very surprising to me that this is the first one that the book actually won.

The plot of both is essentially as expected based on the name. They start with young Abe who is inspired to become a vampire hunter due to the death of his mother at the hands of a vampire. Abe becomes (spoiler alert) President of the United States on the eve of the American Civil War and is commander in chief through the end. They both suppose a fairly large vampire population in the United States. The vampires have been manipulating the southern states so that they can live in the open and have a country of their own. One of the major reasons the southern states clung tenaciously to the institution of slavery was so that the vampires could have an easy source of food. The vampires manipulate the start of the war and participate even to the point of joining Confederate troops on the battle field.

The book was written in a documentary format liberally sprinkled with real and imaginary quotes from Lincoln himself. It weaves in real life historical figures from Lincoln’s time, including a Jefferson Davis dedicated to vampire domination. This style got the job done but I found it hard to really get into the story because of the text book style. The movie obviously doesn’t have that short coming, but it suffered due to the extended time period covered.

Lincoln lived to be 56, and both the book and movie cover at least 50 years of that. The movie impressively kept things moving without bogging down but the extended time jumps made it choppy and a bit difficult to follow. The book didn’t have to keep to a two hour running time so it provided much more detail and made the time transitions a little more smoothly. It also included enough real history to make it feel more realistic, but I’m not a Lincoln scholar so your mileage may vary on this point.

I enjoyed the action sequences in the movie and it used a slow motion style pretty common these days (pioneered by The Matrix). It certainly kept things interesting and Abe’s gadgets and axe handling skills were impressive albiet entirely unrealistic. I did have a bit of a problem with two points in the movie. In the first Lincoln is getting some training from his mentor Henry and manages to shatter a tree trunk in one blow (seen at the 1:18 mark in the trailer above). To me this implied some super human ability, but it was ignored for the rest of the movie. I also felt a horse chase scene was pretty unrealistic and ludicrous, and that’s saying a lot considering the expectations I had based on the movie name.

It was a close race, but I give the book the win this time. The action was a lot of fun and I enjoyed the filming style of the movie, but the choppy plot got to me in a way the book didn’t. I saw the movie before I read the book, so I may have been influenced by imagining the action set pieces as I read the equivalent passages in the book but I still give the book the nod.

If you’re contemplating one or the other, you may want to catch the movie first and see how you feel about the basic ludicrous nature of the plot. If you’re okay with that, then I would pick up the book to fill in the blanks. There’s surprisingly little repetition between the two and I had no trouble watching the movie and reading the book sequentially, which is not usually the case.

Read Full Post »

Movie Review: Brave

There’s been a lot of buzz about Brave in parenting circles for months now.  The Disney hype machine has been in overdrive ever since John Carter undeservedly flopped.  It doesn’t hurt that the main character, Merita, is the latest in Disney’s line of princesses, but doesn’t have a prince of her own.  To me Disney princesses have always felt like a supporting character even though they’re the center of the movie (Snow White, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid).  Using Pixar to create a Disney princess that breaks that mold was an inspired choice.  Not only does Brave not have a ‘prince charming’ or romantic plot of any kind, but there’s also no true villain beyond a brief appearance by Chekhov’s bear.

Merita is a seemingly Scottish princess with a lot of weight on her shoulders.  Her parents brought the realm together by uniting three fueding clans before she was born and she is expected to keep them united as she grows up.  Her doting father indulges her tomboy predilictions by letting her ride and shoot all day in the forest, but her mother works hard at training her in the diplomacy required to hold the kingdom together.  When it comes time for her to marry the eldest son of one of one of the three clans everything starts to go pear shaped.

Brave is essentially a mother-daughter story and is refreshing in that regard.  It tackles growing up in a way similar to Toy Story 3, but Merita’s journey from child to adult requires her to strike a balance between her own happiness and the responsibilities of an adult.  She has to reconcile what she wants for herself with her mother’s expectations and the needs of the kingdom.  The story is deceptively simple about dealing with all these major themes.

The animation was pretty impressive as well.  Pixar has had a lot to say about some new animation methods that they’ve implemented on this film and they certainly showed them off with some impressively picturesque Scottish vistas.  I’m pretty sure Merita’s huge mane of curly red hair was designed to show off their new techniques and it probably raised the rendering budget a good 10% all on its own.

I highly recommend it for children and parents.  I recommend it for the kid-free as well, but you’ll probably want to wait until you can rent it or catch it on premium cable.  There are some potentially scary moments for young children in the typical Disney/Pixar way.  My four year old twins were tense but not overly concerned so you’ll have to judge for yourself how your child will handle it.

Read Full Post »

I’ve been a comic fan for a long time, but not so much a fan of origin stories.  So I was a bit apprehensive about rebooting a Spider-Man franchise that hasn’t been dormant very long.  Yet another depiction of some twentysomething dressed up like a high school kid getting bit by a spider and spending a good long montage figuring out that he has lots of whiz bang new abilities. (yawn)  But the kids were gone and my wife was trying to fry my brain with her list of outside chores to be done so a nice cool movie theater seemed like a good idea.

Suffice to say, I was expecting a lot from The Amazing Spider-Man so I was quite pleasantly surprised.  The origin story was tweaked sufficiently to keep me from getting bored while still staying true to the essence of the character.  This Peter Parker had the problems typical of any kid not in the upper end of the social strata but he wasn’t the enormous loser he was in the Toby McGuire version.  Spider-Man’s fight style is parkour influenced in a way that makes a lot of sense considering Spider-Man’s abilities.

Gratuitous pic of Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy

The script made some interesting choices obviously intended to distance itself from other recent Spider-Man projects.  The choice of the Lizard as the primary villian definitely went a long way toward keeping the material fresh and gave lots of opportunity for random destruction.    Using Gwen Stacey as the love interest opens up some new avenues to explore in the Spider-Man cannon, but I suspect I’m not the only comics fan who spent the entire movie wondering if they were going to include one huge event that shall remain nameless in the interests of avoiding spoilers.  The costume choices they made certainly kept the character true to her 1960’s roots, but didn’t really work for a modern version of the character (fortunately, Emma Stone can make anything work).

I’d recommend the film for any fan of action movies.  The web-slinging sequences are impressive and they have a great acrobatic style just as I see Spider-Man in my imagination.  There are a couple of novel sequences filmed from Spider-Man’s first person point of view that add style but end before they get annoying.  Anyone who knows the least bit about the character will probably see the sequel foreshadowing layered throughout, but at this point I consider that a good thing.

Read Full Post »

My exploration of the Star Wars expanded universe begins with a series of newspaper comic strips that ran from 1981 to 1984.  That’s a run that started not long after the movie release of the Empire Strikes Back and ends just after Return of the Jedi.  I was still in single digits at the time and I don’t remember being aware of a Star Wars comic in the newspaper, so technically I haven’t read the original strips.  Fortunately for future generations of fans, Dark Horse Comics edited and colorized the daily strips and published them in a monthly series called Classic Star Wars in the mid 1990’s.  The comic book industry isn’t prone to passing up chances to make money so of course Dark Horse published graphic novels compiling those monthly comics.  Those graphic novels are what I actually got my hands on 30 years after the original newspaper run.

The strips in volumes 1-3 (the only ones I’m reviewing here) were meant to cover the years between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back so the story starts up at the rebel base not long after the explosion of the first death star.  It covers a lot of adventures, including an encounter between Han Solo and a bounty hunter which Han mentions in The Empire Strikes Back, and ends with showing how the rebels found their new base on the ice planet Hoth as shown at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back.  I often find myself wondering ‘what happens next?’ after any good movie and it’s rare that I don’t see a sequel without speculating on what happened in between so I found these stories to be endlessly fascinating.

The stories roots shine through.  It’s non-stop pulpy action typical of that time period with no character development.  I don’t consider that a drawback, just a limit of a publishing format where your story dribbles out in tiny increments every single day.  There was a fair amount of repetition of plot points intended to continuously remind readers what they read the day before but it wasn’t so much that I found it annoying.  Beyond that, the writing was tight and kept my interest focused on the page.

The art is also pretty typical of the time it was produced.  The colors are brighter and more varied than the more realistic style you see in current comics.  There’s an impressive attention to detail that encourages you to really take in the surrounding scenery rather than speeding through just reading the speech bubbles.  The myriad little details really made the odd aliens and space monsters come to life for me.  The artist captured enough of the character details to make sure we recognize Luke, Han, and Princess Leia without making them look too much like the actors who portrayed them.

The original strips inspired a lot of devotion at the time.  While doing a little research for this post I saw quite a few fans admit to cutting them out and pasting them in scrap books as a kid.  These days even the graphic novel collections are out of print and are selling online for some pretty high dollar amounts.  I definitely recommend any fan of the original trilogy read them if you can find them without spending a lot of money.  I got my copies from the local library and apparently they were published in the Star Wars fan club newsletters in the early 00’s.  You can see scans of some of the original strips (uncolorized) here.

Read Full Post »

I won’t share the unspeakable acts that had to be committed, but hands were shaken, a deal was struck, and I was off to see the Avengers in IMAX 3D.  Unfortunately several hundred other people were also off to see the Avengers in IMAX 3D and they didn’t have to trouble themselves with unspeakable acts, handshakes, and deal making before heading out to the theater.  The IMAX show was sold out all day by the time I got to the front of the line so I had to settle for 3D on a plain ole movie screen.  Let’s just recap by saying it was AWESOME.

I can’t tell a lie, I’m an Avengers fan from waaay back.  I didn’t read comics as a kid but once I got old enough to make my own spending money I started occasionally picking them up, and Avengers was at the top of my list every month.  The interplay between the huge personalities of the superheros has always been a big draw for me.  The team essentially has the physical embodiment of science (Ironman), rage (Hulk), duty and sacrifice (Captain America), and mysticism (Thor).  They couldn’t be more different if it were designed that way.  (Okay, so they were probably designed that way, forget I said that last part.)

Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are excellent, but they wear their ‘not just a super hero movie’ anxiety on their metaphorical sleeves.  Avengers is a straight up summer blockbuster action movie, with no attempts at anything else.  Jamming all those big personalities in means the unifying plot and backstory are wispy at best, but I get the impression this was done intentionally so the hero characters have more time to bounce off each other.  The characters are well written and true to the nature of their comic origins, so the writer’s decision paid off.  I was prepared to not like the movie based on the ever so thin plot it in the beginning, but it wasn’t much of a problem once the characters all got in a room together.  The main draw of the Avengers has always been how the powerful personalities conflict and complement each other.

I may need to backpedal a bit on the ‘straight up summer blockbuster action movie’ just a little bit.  The action and aliens were mixed with just a dash of comedy.  Robert Downey as Tony Stark was the obvious source, but his quips went from witty to grating mighty quickly.  Just when I was starting to cringe every time Downey opened his mouth I realized he was meant to be annoying, and once again true to the character.  Ironman has always been at his best as a contrast to the stodgy by nature Captain America.  They make for a fun odd couple pairing and I’ve always felt like they should team up more often.

While Downey is the obvious comedic relief, the role of team clown is really stolen by the CGI Hulk, and his human counterpart played by Mark Ruffalo.  I had my doubts about Ruffalo’s casting when it was first announced, but consider them withdrawn.  He plays Bruce Banner as a mellow surfer genius which seems logical for a guy who turns into a giant green ball of destruction if he gets angry.  I’m pretty sure I missed some subtext in the scene where Banner admits he’s actually always angry.  Everyone is upstaged by the CGI Hulk in two hilarious scenes.  The first is merely chuckle worthy, but the second had everyone in the theater with me laughing.

The climactic battle involves destruction of a large swathe of Manhattan during a battle between the Avengers and some alien invaders.  (An event that occurred about every 3-4 issues in the comics.)  The CGI was impressive throughout, and this was the only time the 3D actually come in handy.  There was a lot of zipping around on floating chariot platforms that showed up well in the 3D, but up until the battle sequence I could have really done without the glasses.

I recommend it for anyone interested in action movies.  I don’t think you need to see the previous solo movies the characters have all been in, but it would probably help.  It never stops running but it has just the right mixture of action and character to keep everyone interested.  Don’t bring your little kids though.  No matter how much they love their superhero figurines there are going to be some scenes that are a little bit scary.

Read Full Post »

One of the things that’s made me a fan of science fiction and fantasy is the world building. Even mediocre to poor writing can be forgiven if you manage to get me interested in the overall mythology of your world. I think that’s primarily why I’m such a fan of Star Wars. Even now the movies are good enough to get me to watch, but the enduring appeal is the expanded Star Wars universe. I’ve always been a fan of larger, sometimes even ongoing, stories and the Star Wars universe certainly appeals to that.

The expanded universe (the EU as it’s referred to by fans) refers to the entire collection of books, comics, and games about Star Wars. George Lucas has kept tight rein on the mythology of the EU which has resulted in a cohesive body of work where what happens in one author’s work is often referred to in another’s. The EU started slowly, I suspect because Lucas didn’t want to have anything impinging on his mythology before he got his original trilogy all the way out there, but even before Return of the Jedi was released there were a few novels and a weekly series in the Sunday comics filling in the action between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.

The really fun thing here… the EU builds off the movies, but in a lot of cases some contributor has created something that was added back into the movies in one of Lucas’ many tinkerings.  It’s every fanfic writer’s dream.  The original versions of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back had signs and labels with modern English, but a set designer on Return of the Jedi included a sign a language that didn’t have our standard Latin alphabet.  This was expanded into a full alphabet during the development of a Star Wars roleplaying game which was in turn used to replace the English in the original films.

In the early 1990’s author Timothy Zahn published the Thrawn trilogy which created some of the most endearing Star Wars lore. He was the first to mention the city planet Coruscant which is the capital of both the empire and the republic which came before it. Scenes from Coruscant were added to the celebrations shown at the end of Return of the Jedi. Zahn also created some fan favorite characters that some (or at least me) find at least as interesting as the ones in the films.  I’m not entirely clear whether Zahn came up with this first, or Lucas cut it out of his early drafts for technical reasons but Zahn was the first to include details about Coruscant.

The EU answered one question that I’m constantly wondering about in any movie I see. “What happens next.” At this point the timeline extends more than fourty years past the end of Return of the Jedi and includes several major galactic upheaveals along with the adult children of a lot of the original SW characters.  It’s also been filling in the blanks between movies and sparked an entirely new franchise into the early history which took place thousands of years before the movies.  (I do have a bit of trouble with this because culture and technology are remarkable similar over the thousands of years.)

All this discussion is a long winded way of saying……. I’ve been doing a lot of reading in the Star Wars expanded universe and it’s probably going to be showing up on the blog over the next few weeks/months. A lot of it is mediocre writing that becomes interesting to me BECAUSE it’s Star Wars so I won’t be too insulted if you skip over those posts.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »